Who’s afraid of effectiveness?

At the Animal Rights conference in early July in Los Angeles, one of the keynote speakers was the legendary PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk. Ingrid and PETA are controversial for many animal rights activists and vegans. I understand some of the criticism, but usually I defend PETA against all too cheap attacks. I also respect Ingrid for her achievements. Being in a leadership position in the animal rights movement, (as a woman, moreover), for such a long time is actually an achievement in itself.

Still, some of the things she said during her speech at the conference made me frown. Ingrid was clearly having an issue with people emphasizing effectiveness. Effectiveness isn’t hard to understand: when you’re effective, you are good at getting the results you are aiming for. Effectiveness in itself shouldn’t be controversial. If we invest a lot of efforts into helping animals, (no matter if you define the latter in terms of reducing suffering, cruelty, or killing), because we care about them, we want these efforts to be effective. We want them to actually make a difference.

A possible effectiveness-equation *
A possible effectiveness-equation *

When you want to be effective, you probably will want to figure out where you can help the most, where you have the biggest effect (or let’s at least say: “a big effect”). This is particularly important in light of our limited resources. Even though our movement seems to get more and more funds, we still obviously can’t do everything we want, and we need to make choices. A sensible strategic choice is to spend our time and money in places where we can have the biggest impact. This may be a factor of the return on investment (how many animals can I affect for how much money), the intensity of suffering, the number of beings suffering, or the difference we can make because no one else is doing it — to name a few important selection criteria.

Looking at it this way, within the animal rights movement, a focus on farmed animals makes a lot of sense: there is less money to help them than there is for more popular causes, like companion animals, wild animals, etc. Of all the animals we torture and kill, ninety nine percent are killed for food purposes. And their suffering in general is probably among the worst human-caused suffering in the animal world. So if we can change something for farm animals, like legislation, attitudes, alternatives… we are changing things for a big group of animals.

In her speech, if I heard her correctly, Ingrid Newkirk seemed to somehow disagree with this line of reasoning. She said she had been asked to talk about farmed animals, but indicated that she actually didn’t want to do that. Her slideshow was mostly about animals other than farmed animals — like individual circus or companion animals. She stated that, if PETA would have listened to the people who are into effectiveness, these animals would not have been saved.

The argument made by Ingrid and many others against effectiveness-seekers, is that animals are individuals and that we can not make calculations with them or just look at numbers.

However, when those of us who cherish effectiveness go after the big numbers, they do that exactly because animals are feeling, sentient individuals. When we talk about helping or prioritizing the sixty billion chickens in the world, this may sound like a statistic, but we are fully aware that we are talking about a collection of individuals. And if we value individuals, would a big group of such suffering individuals not be a higher priority than a smaller group? The more individuals we can help, the better, no? With limited resources, there is always what we call an “opportunity cost“: when we are doing one thing, we can’t do another. 

I’m sure that there are some valid points to be made regarding prioritizing effectiveness. I’m sure some people might take it too far. There is the possibility that they could let the end justify spurious means. Or some of them may even be lacking in empathy. Effectiveness-oriented people would do well to be aware of these risks.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to argue with a desire, a striving for effectiveness. And it’s not as if all of a sudden, our whole movement has become effective. There is still a long way to go, and I think Ingrid’s criticism definitely didn’t come at the right time. Effectiveness might be a dirty word in health care and in other domains, but it shouldn’t be one in our movement.

No one is saying that the primate in the cage or the dog on the chain shouldn’t be helped. If some of us, however, would suggest prioritizing other beings, it’s not because we don’t care about those individuals. It’s because we care so much about suffering that we prefer to focus on where we can help the most of them

* source



20 thoughts on “Who’s afraid of effectiveness?

  1. Thanks for this, Tobias. While it might seem compelling to say that “this elephant wouldn’t have been saved if we cared about effectiveness,” we generally don’t think about the other side — how many chickens and other farm animals suffered because we chose to focus on the visible elephant.

    When we choose to do one thing, we are choosing not to do others. If one course of advocacy can reduce X amount of suffering, and the other course can only reduce 1/100th the amount, I don’t see how it is ethical to choose the latter.

  2. While I agree in general with this position, I also see another kind of effectiveness: the effectiveness in reaching a large number of people. Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, for example, spends a huge amount of money per animal saved. Yet I support their work because they are visible to the general public, accepted, and provide many educational opportunities. It is difficult to count how many people’s minds are changed about how they see animals, through Best Friends’ work. Similarly, those who work to end circus animal suffering often reach large numbers of people who simply have not thought about animals and how we treat them. And those who work to save the large sea mammals in Sea World and other ocean parks have certainly reached a large number of people who, by seeing these animals differently, are primed to see others with more empathy as well. I do not know how you measure this kind of success but when I see how many of my omnivore friends moving toward a more compassionate view of animals I believe my experience is not unique.

    1. thanks for your input. what you are doing is that you give arguments for why these things (best friends, circusses…) might be *effective*, so there’s no real contradiction here i think. The difference is mainly in that in your examples the impact may be more about “intangibles” (wonderful and useful word 🙂 and therefore less easily measurable.

      1. True. But the number of mind changed will have a bigger impact than the number of animals saved, if the goal is to stop the abuse. A saved animal will only live their live, wich is great but it won’t help that much. So we have to reach them where they’re at too, with causes that they would agree with more easily.

      2. Ingrid and PETA addressed the issue of effectiveness with their 2001 ‘Eat the Whales’ campaign, saying that if you want to reduce suffering, but don’t want to give up on eating meat, you should eat the largest animals on the planet…

  3. Although I don’t agree with all of PETA’s tactics, I also have much respect & admiration for Ingrid Newkirk like you, Tobias.

    Regarding where “She stated that, if PETA would have listened to the people who are into effectiveness, these animals would not have been saved.”

    If “these animals” were saved, doesn’t that by default mean PETA is “effective”, even if they used their own PETA tactics?

    Like you also wrote, Tobias:
    “Effectiveness isn’t hard to understand: when you’re effective, you are good at getting the results you are aiming for.”

    Congrats on your effectiveness, PETA! 🙂

    Thanks for another great post, Tobias.

    1. It is effective, but not so efficient.

      Maybe I’m wrong, but can it be that effective altruists often say “effective” when they mean “efficient”?

      1. Hmmm… yes, maybe you are right, Leon….
        I think we should clear all this up and simply focus on being effectively efficient as possible…or is it efficiently effective?? lol

  4. I guess the reason why ineffectiveness of some campaigns is really irrational, is due to its underlying arbitrariness. People, including animal activists, have a tendency to categorize problems in arbitrary categories. There is the problem of livestock farming (with as a subproblem e.g. poultry farming, with subsubproblem e.g. egg production), the problem of animals used in entertainment (with subproblems of e.g. dolphinaria and circuses), and so on. So people tend to see a problem (or subproblem or subsubproblem) that is neglected and they start doing actions against their chosen problem. But there are different ways to categorize these problems and group them into subproblems and subsubproblems. All the problems can be aggregated in one big superproblem: animal suffering and rights violations. This superproblem consists of problems A (animal agriculture), B (animal entertainment) and so on. Both A and B involve rights violations and therefore appear to be equally important, and therefore people believe that all the problems at this level deserve equal attention.
    The way how people categorize problems, results in ineffectiveness due to moral illusions such as futility thinking: the tendency to neglect a problem if the problem cannot be solved completely.
    Suppose there are two problems A and B that both cause suffering. Problem A (e.g. animal agriculture) is much bigger and causes 100 times more suffering than problem B (e.g. animal circuses). You have to choose between two interventions. You have time and means for only one intervention. Intervention 1 (e.g. a reducetarian approach to meat reduction) only partially reduces the suffering caused by problem A with 10%, so problem A is only partially solved. Intervention 2 (e.g. a prohibition of animal circuses) completely solves problem B and eliminates all suffering caused by problem B. Intervention 1 is ten times more effective in terms of reducing suffering, because a 10% decrease of 100 units of suffering caused by problem A is better than a 100% decrease of 1 unit of suffering caused by problem B. Still, a lot of people prefer intervention 2, because intervention 2 completely eliminates a problem whereas a 10% solution of problem A seems more futile.
    This preference for the less effective intervention is an example of futility thinking (and is related to zero risk bias and scope neglect). It is a moral illusion, because it is based on an arbitrariness: an arbitrary separation of all suffering into suffering caused by problem A and suffering caused by problem B. There are many other ways to separate all the suffering in the world. Perhaps problem A is the composite of two subproblems A1 (e.g. pig meat) and A2 (e.g. foie gras) and intervention 1 completely solves problem A2. Why aggregating both problems A1 and A2 into problem A that seems to be futile to resolve (although A2 can be completely resolved), but not aggregating problems A and B together in one superproblem? Why arbitrarily separating the suffering instead of looking at all the suffering in the world?

  5. I have no idea what she said here, but a focus on immediate “effectiveness” over the longer term picture could be counter-productive. The problem being, of course, is that you can’t really measure the “effectiveness” of a long-term strategy in the moment.

    But most people are just talking about effectiveness, few people are actually trying to measure matters and when they have they seem to ignore the results (e.g., Mercy for Animal’s study that refuted the effectiveness of their methods). Being goal directed and “effective” means more than just talking about it, it means taking the time to actually clarify matters and measure success. And this isn’t always easy.

    1. True. I see it very often, animal rights activists included: some people seem to forget about the end goal sometimes…

  6. Thanks for this one, Tobias. Just a few thoughts to move things forward (I guess what I say applies to both effectiveness and efficiency, so please always read both).

    Let’s assume we can choose between saving 10,000 chickens or 1 chimpanzee. Numbers alone direct us to the chickens. But maybe that focus is too narrow. What if saving the 10,000 chicken has very little impact on the attitudes and behaviours of the general public? And what if saving the chimpanzee has a stronger impact on the general public and ultimately leads to more people scrutinising and revising their attitudes and behaviours re animals in general? Now the picture is getting more complex.

    I think we need to acknowledge the possibility that there are probably various criteria for determining the effectiveness of a strategy or approach (needless to say that this list is non-exhaustive):
    (i) impact on animals in terms of sheer numbers
    (ii) impact on the general public as garnering their support is crucial for the success of the movement
    (iii) impact on activists as their motivation is crucial for the power of the movement
    (iv) mid-term and long-term effects rather than only immediate impact

    The gist of what I’m trying to say is sinmply: focusing on smaller numbers, or even individual animals, may well meet the demands of effectiveness/efficiency.

    At the end of the day, however, the best way to solve these issues would be to inspire and support more empirical research (sociology, psychology, etc.)

    Thanks again for all you’re doing. Great food for thought!

    1. thanks jens. i think my writing wasn’t entirely optimal. i would rephrase it in this sense:
      there’s two issues:
      One is the issue of: are we in agreement that we focus on effectiveness, which means: that we are going to get the results that we say we wanna get, rather than select causes and projects for other reasons (this seems obvious).
      Two is: when we agree about this focus on effectiveness, the question is raised: what is effective?
      The numbers impacted are a very important criterium, but like you say or imply, this may be achieved in the long or short term, directly or indirectly. in that sense, many other things than just going directly after a big number of animals to save, can work.
      I’m not sure if i’m making myself very clear, but i think we’re in agreement.

  7. The stumbling block Ingrid (who helped create me as an advocate) and many other advocates often ignore or are unaware of is the negative data, those not spared/saved/changed by an effort as we proudly beam on those who were. Admittedly, any effort is a bit of a gamble, as we can not be sure that we can spare 10,000 chickens with the same amount of money and time and effort as that needed for 1 chimp. But we can be guided by statistical likelyhoods.

  8. Seems to me we should do what we can, where we can, and not spend much time arguing about A vs B! Also as Gary Francione says….it’s all speciest and ALL our efforts should be directed at making everyone Vegan and “forgetting this argument”.

  9. Thanks once again for a great post. Jawaharlal Nehru said that action – to be effective – must be directed to clearly conceived ends. If the Indian independence movement hadn’t focused on being effective, they’d probably still be under British rule. The circus animal campaigns are fine, but we also need a lot more groups and individuals focused on effective vegan activism.

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